As information science professionals, we know that taxonomies exist everywhere. In the grocery store aisles, in libraries as the Dewey Decimal Classification system and of course online taxonomies on retail or informational websites – to name just a few. So as we are all experiencing our own personal journeys through this COVID-19 pandemic, where are you seeing taxonomies?

As an avid reader, one of my very first thoughts was the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. If you have read it you know it is an extreme version of our current reality. When it first became clear that the coronavirus was going to massively change the way we live, I even found myself searching for comparisons between this and other, fictional plagues.

Then I realized that though I repeatedly profess I hate zombies and won’t watch movies or read books with zombies, I have actually read many dystopian apocalyptic books: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher, Bird Box by Josh Malerman and The Girl with the All Gifts by M.R. Carey (okay, maybe zombies).

Realizing this I had to acknowledge that my preferred genres of books were certainly a version of taxonomy or classification. But they all had something in common – they were either current time or future time. What does historical dystopian fiction tell us about pandemics?

Some works of pandemic literary art are historical stories tethered to real diseases, real times, i.e. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Whether they were written contemporaneously to the crisis they describe or in retrospect, whether they deploy straight realism or not, they are concerned with the particularities of the world as it was. They are works of historical fiction or at least become so, in a way, through the passage of time. They are not, however, the ones that we have turned to in these strange weeks and months.

Has fiction informed reality? There is a popular video of Italian mayors scolding their constituents for going outside and in it the mayor of Reggio Calabria, says: “Look, this isn’t a film. You are not Will Smith in I Am Legend. So, you have to go home.”

It is fiction, more than history, that marks the borders of our collective imagination, and none more so than the literary category of science fiction. We could argue that it is harmless, helpful even. But when we look to our fictions to imagine our futures, where will that take us? What role does the taxonomy play into that journey?

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Data Harmony, a unit of Access Innovations, the world leader in indexing and making content findable.